I remember spending my birthday on the tiny Indonesian island of Gili Meno in 2000. It was a little spec of paradise with barely more than a few wooden bungalows and a small local village in the center. We hung out with the locals both at our bungalow and in the village and saw almost no other tourists. We spent our days walking around the island or into the village in the center, soaking in the calm water, eating delicious food prepared by our hosts, and enjoying the beautiful sunsets. I still have a postcard I bought that year because I remembered that the island really did look as perfect as that postcard.
When my boyfriend and I were planning a trip to SE Asia last year and were taking his daughter and her boyfriend for their first SE Asian experience, I thought the Gilis would be just perfect! Of the three Gili islands, we opted for Gili Air, the middle of the three Gili islands as far as facilities and tourism/partying. I didn't want to take them somewhere too remote nor did I want what I remember to be the full-on touristy atmosphere of Gili Trawangan (Gili T).
I guess it's just a sign of the times that every place is getting more and more populated. We started our trip with a couple of days in Ubud and I barely even recognized the place! Last time I was there it was nothing like the hustle bustle tourist-filled place it is today.
But enough of my "back in the day...."
We had read quite a few articles about young travelers dying on the Gilis from drinking what they thought to be vodka but turned out to be arak (the local liquor) poisoned with methanol from improper/cheap distilling. We took note and decided to drink only bottled beer. You can also bring your own bottle over to the island that you purchase from duty free at the airport.
We took the fast boat to Gili Air since we had more money than time on this particular trip, but there is also a local ferry option for only a few dollars. From Ubud (and I'm sure Kuta or other popular areas) it was super easy to book the van/ferry since there are tour stands everywhere and even some of the hotels can book it for you. But shop around and compare rates before you commit!
The van picked us up at our hotel and dropped us off at the boat dock where we had to go into the office/restaurant to get our ferry tickets. There we had the option to buy the return trip ticket or not. We did opt to buy it there and thankfully it was the same price as we found on the island (I had to know if I had overpaid - figuring I did).
In typical SE Asian fashion, it was a somewhat long wait for the boat with nobody too concerned with letting us know when it would come. But eventually, after enjoying some delicious iced coffee from the restaurant, the boat came and we got to Gili Air.
We steered clear of the horse-drawn carts and easily walked to our hotel that had a nice pool. We felt pretty good about how nice the room was for the money we paid ($50 US which is a lot for SE Asia but we were not really budget traveling this trip).
I can't say that we were blown away with Gili Air like I had hoped. If we weren't expecting a relaxing beach paradise, we might have liked it there. Unfortunately, we were. There's a lot going on with (non-Indonesian) people everywhere and well, I'm not sure what else to say. None of us liked it. There was very little "Indonesia" there.
During the day the water is so full of boats that we could not even enjoy being in the water. It was also a bit rough and was not relaxing at all. There are no cars which is nice and a dirt path circles the perimeter of the island but it's just one hotel after the other on the interior side of the road with really bad over-priced restaurants along the water.
One of the photos I took at breakfast was looking away from where the majority of the boats were and the water was a bit calmer. The photo makes it look way better than it was during the day! :) We dug the tiny bar at the turtle snorkeling area about half way up the East side of the island (where we did barely see a turtle through the murky water) and I enjoyed the outdoor movies in beanbag chairs at night. It's not like it's a dreadful place to be as long as you want to hang out with other tourists and nothing else.
I later heard someone refer to Gili Air as a "backpacker ghetto". So maybe if you think of it as something more along the lines of Khao San Road in Bangkok, you can enjoy it for what it is.